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Starzz shining brighter than ever thanks to morale boost

Utah has suddenly found chemistry and confidence

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What's the difference?

That's what everyone keeps asking the Starzz, who've won four of their last five games and are a game-and-a-half ahead of the two teams tied for fifth place.

Most importantly, Utah is finally in the driver's seat going down the stretch of the season.

Confidence seems to be everyone's No. 1 reason for the improved and more consistent play of the fourth-place Starzz, who take on one of the team's in fifth-place, the Portland Fire, tonight in the Rose Garden at 6 p.m. (MDT). Chemistry is also big on the list of explanations.

How the players found confidence and chemistry is a question not as easily answered.

"We've all been together for a few months now," said point guard Jennifer Azzi of the team's ability to play better together. She believes some of the Starzz failure earlier this season began with the expectation that this Utah team was so much more talented than in years past. Most of that analysis came from outside the team, she said, and almost anything Utah did wasn't quite good enough.

"When you have expectations like that, you have nothing but failure," she said of early comments about Utah. "Now the motivation is coming from us, not the expectations of other people. We are playing for ourselves."

With the win on Saturday against the Lynx, the Starzz won three games in a row for the first time this season, and they are looking an awful lot like a playoff caliber team.

It wasn't always this way. Just a little more than a month ago, the Starzz could only string together losses and found great play an elusive concept.

Azzi's teammates agree with her that time has helped them learn about each other and the opponents they face. Utah coach Candi Harvey believes both are true, and that its just the result of good old-fashioned hard work.

The Starzz have played to a 7-3 record under her direction. Utah was 5-8 when former coach Fred Williams resigned earlier this month.

"I'm just pleased for our players," Harvey said of the improved play. "I'm proud that I've emphasized hard work and they responded. And now it's paying off. They're bringing it for 40 minutes every night."

Utah had to go to overtime to defeat the Minnesota Lynx on Saturday. But the Lynx are a very different team from almost any other. All of the players play most all the positions, and the post players bring the ball down the floor and set up the offense.

The Starzz face a more traditional match-up in the Fire, and they have beaten Portland in the Rose Garden earlier this season. Utah has the potential to open up a huge lead on the Fire in the standings with a win, but the team's coach is quick to say this is just another game, and there are eight others left.

"I'm not putting too much emphasis on this game," Harvey said. "This game is no more or less important than a game five games ago because of what we did to ourselves in June."

E-MAIL: adonaldson@desnews.com